Public Image Ltd.’s John Lydon still seems angry about nearly everything, which made for a riveting show Friday night at Upstate Concert Hall.
The punk rock founding father — better known to some as Johnny Rotten from his Sex Pistols days — was in fine form during PiL’s two-hour set in front of an excitable crowd that filled maybe two-thirds of the venue, making wisecracks between songs and berating audience members at the drop of a hat. At one point late in the set, he even charged at someone off to the side of the stage who was doing something particularly annoying, letting loose a string of profanities.
For most of the evening however, Lydon and his bandmates — longtime PiL members Bruce Smith on drums and Lu Edmonds on guitar, with newcomer Scott Firth on bass — got down to the business at hand with very little stage banter. Lydon is still one of the most intense frontmen in punk (or just rock ‘n’ roll, period), and he was in fine form this night, hollering, snarling and bugging his eyes out through each extended jam. The rest of the group was no less intense, as the band tore through songs from throughout its career, with particular focus on the just-released “This is PiL,” the band’s first album in 20 years.
Opening with “This is Not a Love Song,” the group quickly established a furious dance-punk groove that shifted and mutated throughout the evening depending on the song, but never abated. While Lydon was the unquestionable star of the show, dancing around like a possessed Terminator robot throughout the set, Edmonds was also incredible to watch, whether playing a standard six-string, a Middle Eastern lute-like saz or distorted banjo, put to great effect on a snarling version of “Flowers of Romance.”
Each song the band played turned into an extended jam, with even Lydon getting in on the improvisational fury — new song “Deeper Water” turned into a sludgy, dark groove-fest, while the slamming “Disappointed” showed the group at its most furious and melodic at the same time. Other highlights included the militaristic march of “Warrior,” with Lydon’s snarl echoing throughout the club, and main set closer “Religion,” another chance for Lydon to spit out angry words at the rabid crowd.
Best of all was the encore performance of “Rise,” which was met with the loudest applause all evening. As the band once again stretched the song’s mechanistic groove into epic jam territory, Lydon got the crowd into a call-and-response chant on the line “Anger is an energy” — quite appropriate given the onslaught the band had just unleashed.
But there was a deep joy underlying all the punk fury in the group’s performance, which in the end made the show. It was clear from Lydon’s face, whether he was conducting his group through new rager “One Drop” or laying back into the groove on the relatively gentle (for PiL, anyway) “Reggie Song,” that he was enjoying himself. And why wouldn’t he be? After 20 years, PiL is finally a working band releasing new material again, and judging from this performance, they still have something to say.
Brooklyn duo Lunic opened the show to the early comers, with audience members slowly trickling in during the set. Leader Kaitee Page certainly has a powerful voice, as evidenced in this set on songs such as “Far Away” and especially “Future Sex Drama,” but the twosome suffered from “band in a box” syndrome — most of the sound coming from the stage was preprogrammed into a laptop and played back over the P.A. Nevertheless, the group’s danceable sound made a nice transition into PiL’S intense performance later on.